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The Problem With Just Giving Streets to Restaurants

12:01 AM EDT on May 5, 2020

COVID-19 may soon put rest to one of the most persistent myths of our national car culture: that restaurants need an entire ocean of parking right outside their doors in order to survive.

In communities as wildly different as Hartford, Conn. and Wheeling, W.V., cities that are easing their lockdown restrictions are finally allowing cafes to repurpose the excess asphalt outside their doors as socially distanced space for paying customers. Slate's Henry Grabar penned a viral op-ed encouraging communities to go a step further, and let restaurants without dedicated lots close down part of the street to create instant patios, too.

And restaurants aren't the only ones eager to reclaim streets from cars. Businesses and organizations of all kinds are "covidifying" their operating procedures for our new reality, such as customer-limited farmer's markets to ease the pressure off of crowded grocery stores or outdoor church services. (No, we're not talking about the megachurch that asked its congregants to show up in their cars and "honk once for Amen" – worshiping in person, six feet apart, in a parking lot sounds a whole lot less annoying for the neighbors.)

It may seem like an obvious idea whose time as come. In many cases, it undoubtedly is.

But before we start giving our public space over to private companies — yes, even that small business we all want to see thrive after this is all over — we should pause and ask ourselves some hard questions about how to do this right in our unique communities.

Here are three questions any city leader should ask herself before she allows that patio exemption — so we can make sure it lasts:

Is there still room for people to get around – and not just by car?

Here's the thing about the restaurant patio renaissance: we can't let it become just another way we push vulnerable road users off our sidewalks.

Even pre-COVID, people who use assistive devices have been skeptical of the sidewalk cafe for a very simple reason — a whole lot of businesses have no idea how to place their tables in a way that meets ADA accessibility standards.

It's not hard to imagine how, if we let the patio extend all the way to the curb, street scenes like the above would get even harder for a wheelchair user to navigate. Even an able-bodied person might have a little trouble — especially if the road beyond the curb wasn't rededicated as space for walkers, and outfitted with temporary ramps to make it usable for disabled people.

Every business should have the right to make use of the asphalt beyond its front doors as a safe, social-distancing-appropriate extension of its business — and when its does, every city should also dedicate space for walking, biking and assistive devices beyond that nouveau-patio. You can't have the first without the second, and in a lot of contexts, you can't have the second without removing a little space for cars. That's a good thing, and we shouldn't be afraid of it.

Did you engage the community first? 

Even mostly beloved Open Streets events, like Oakland's soon-to-be 74 mile "slow streets" network, have drawn gentle criticism from equity advocates for launching without a community engagement period first — a move that resulted in an event that some felt was a bigger boon to joggers than the working poor.

As our non-residential areas start to reclaim a little space from cars, it's even more important that we learn from Oakland's critics. Not everyone in the neighborhood may want the bar down the street to suddenly spill out onto the sidewalk — at least not without asking the neighbors and getting them involved.

Fortunately, there's a strong precedent for how to do community engagement when traditional community meetings are impossible due to COVID-19 — thanks to the hard pre-pandemic work of equity advocates. Progressive community leaders have long pushed for more inclusive models than the traditional public-comment session at the public library, which might not be accessible to a person with three jobs and a variable schedule, or a deaf resident without a private interpreter, or a parent who can't get childcare in the evenings. Many of those strategies are more applicable than ever during a pandemic.

Oxfam has a great list of community engagement recommendations that are specific to the recent lockdowns, ranging from virtual meetings to socially-distanced door-knocking campaigns and much more.  It's not easy work, and it's certainly not efficient, but it's absolutely crucial if we want these policies to have any sort of staying power.

Is there open space outside commercial corridors?

Here's another, less intuitive peril of the sidewalk revolution: it'd be very, very easy to concentrate all that beautiful new street life into a handful of busy and well-to-do commercial corridors. That's a problem for social distancing, and it's a problem for equity, too, because if you don't happen to live in an area rich with restaurants and shops, your neighborhood could get left out.

It bears repeating: the Open Streets model is fundamentally about giving public space back to the public good — and not just increasing foot traffic to businesses (even if that's a happy side effect in a challenging economic moment). And that's why we need to make sure that the covidification of American businesses doesn't become a stand-in for robust, free open otreets policies — policies that exist primarily for sake of simple transportation, and recreation, and any safe, lawful, non-profit-generating endeavor the residents of that street might desire.

So let's not just have beefed-up restaurant patios and miles of socially distant farmer's market stalls. Let's move our museums onto our streets and line our roads with non-interactive public art that's designed for the COVID-19 moment.

Let's legalize street performers, and stop criminalizing street vendors, and give anyone who would do business on our streets the space and community engagement resources they need to keep their businesses running with the collaboration and active consent of their neighbors.

Most of all, let's get creative with the 50 to 60 percent of public space that we usually dedicate to storing and moving cars. There are a ton of extraordinary things the public — and non-profits, and even some for-profit businesses — can do with that valuable real estate.

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